MY FRIEND URSULA
—The Jew From Shanghai
By Herbert W. Piekow
In March of 1939 my friend Ursula Blomberg was just eleven years old when she lost her innocence at the rough, stubby fingers of a Nazi matron who ordered Ursula to undress in a small, cold room on the Austrian side of the Brenner Pass. The unsmiling, large woman thrust her probing fingers up Ursula into her most intimate spot. “No jewels or gold coins in this Judenschwein,” the woman barked at the closed door.
My friend was ordered to dress; as she slipped on her underpants a trickle of blood snaked down her pale right leg. She quickly rejoined her mother and the other women who had been selected to enter the private rooms. All the women stood silently, not one of them discussing why they had been separated from their husbands, nor what they had experienced behind the closed doors. Half an hour passed before the women were allowed to rejoin their husbands on the Genoa bound train.
Passage aboard the Shanghai, China destined, German steamship that left Genoa, Italy cost Ursula’s father nearly $45,000 dollars. Once on board the steamship they joined 420 other Jews each of whom had experienced the same Nazi scrutiny as they packed the single suitcase under the watchful supervision of an armed guard. Anyone caught trying to smuggle valuables was shot and their possessions appropriated.
In July of 1938, at the behest of Franklin Roosevelt, The Evian Conference was held to see how many Jews each country of the world would accept. After a month long meeting all delegates decided that none could allow any Jew into their country. Not the US whose immigration policy allowed 25,000 Germans annually, but not one US Consul approved a single Jewish visa application; not Canada or even Mexico.
The only one accepting Jews was Japanese controlled Shanghai, referred to as: “The armpit of the world.” To the nearly 20,000 newly arrived Middle European Jews, Shanghai was a welcomed challenge. In August of 1939 the Japanese closed Shanghai, Ursula and her parents felt blessed to be living amongst the other stateless Jews in the sweltering port city.
From the deck of their steamship the newly arrived Jews whispered amongst themselves as they surmised the view of various national flags waving from the wharf side buildings must be Consulate Row. The most arrogant was the red, white and black flag of Hitler’s German Reich; the huge swastika fluttered mockingly in the breeze. At that time Shanghai was divided into several areas: The International Settlement, leased by the British for ninety-nine years, was the heart of the city. The Concession Francais, was a pleasant residential area where Ursula’s family would later live for a short time. The huge Chinese Quarter was off-limits to foreigners.
A greeting committee from the Jewish community escorted the new arrivals to a temporary Heime (a free shelter) in Hongkew, an area adjacent to the International Settlement. Hongkew had been “won” from the Chinese in 1937 by the Japanese, who invited Jews to settle there.
At the time Shanghai was home to the black sheep of Europe’s wealthy families; Chinese of every social strata, Egyptian and Syrian Jews had lived there since the days of the ancient Silk Route, and some were amongst the wealthiest citizens of China, much like Mexicans of Lebanese descent are here. Crowded into Shanghai was a large society of Eastern Jews who had fled there during the Russian pogroms; these arrivals had solidified the Jewish presence.
By 1939 there existed nine Jewish bookstores, a circulation library, a German language radio station and four cemeteries to accommodate various Jewish sects. Jewish newspapers were printed in German, Polish, Russian, Yiddish and English.
The Jewish community assisted the newly arriving European Jews with meager, shared housing and by conducting survival education programs. The recent émigrés had been allowed to travel with less than a hundred dollars and their desire for survival. Ursula’s father quickly learned the intricacies of trading goods and soon ran a painting company, which thrived due to the fact that almost everything in Shanghai had to be painted yearly.
Ursula contributed to the family’s finances by teaching both English and French while her mother taught herself to sew and began a business altering clothing for the Jewish community. The family did as so many were forced to do, they found another family to share quarters with, a place with a working toilet, not a shared bucket that had to be emptied each morning. Mrs. Blomberg learned to buy and cook just enough for each meal, as there was no way to keep food fresh in the steaming port city. Everyone missed their former homes and lifestyles but each time they heard news from Europe, through the Red Cross, they prayed for the families they left behind. Ursula’s mother frequently repeated the Chinese proverb. “Only tomorrow can give us answers for today; and tomorrow never comes.”
In Shanghai life had a forced normalcy, Ursula had her first crush while people formed lasting friendships, and others married, had babies and died. A theatre group formed to give very professional performance. A small, excellent orchestra entertained the foreign community with regularly scheduled concerts.
To the teenaged Ursula the dance hall was her favorite Shanghai escape. The converted warehouse was the size of several football fields and with white linen clad tables, waiters rushing about and a dance band playing the latest American and British dance tunes everyone left the hardships at home.
Life was challenging but the immigrants were free to live and prosper; however, most of them knew nothing remained the same for long. One late November afternoon in 1941 Ursula was going to friends for dinner and as she had many times, she walked past the US Consulate to say, “Hi,” to some of the Marine guards she had befriended, and to look at the American flag which reminded her that one day she would immigrate to the US.
The Marines were lined up in front of the Consulate, two young men formally closed, then bolted the gates before joining their fellow Marines. Ursula begged her friends to tell her what was happening. “We’re going on maneuvers to Manila.”
Hot tears slid down Ursula’s face when she told her family. Everyone looked to America. This was bad news but more was to come because in February of 1943 the Japanese issued, “The Proclamation Concerning Restrictions of Residence and Business of the Stateless Refugees.” Neither White Russian nor Shanghailander Jews were affected by the edict that required some 20,000 Jews and 50,000 Chinese to live together in less than a square mile of land.
The Hongkew ghetto had no barbed wire and it was not heavily patrolled, but one needed a pass. Everyone had to find and pay for their own accommodations, which were primitive, cramped and without running water. This meant reverting to the shared toilet bucket and all the indignities of living in a confined place with strangers you hoped you could grow to like. Ursula, now a young woman, found it disturbing to listen through the thin sheet that separated her bed from her parents as they undressed each night; she tried with all her might not to hear them, or the other couple that shared the single room divided only by worn material for walls.
For the remainder of the war the displaced Jews of Shanghai struggled to feed themselves, entertain and educate themselves and hope for the day they could immigrate to the United States. Somehow most of them managed to live with little food, less medication and plenty of hope as they endured cholera epidemics and moon light bombing raids. One night their prayers were answered and the Japanese silently left Shanghai and as the sun came up American and British soldiers at last entered the city.